Reccomend Excellent U.S. History Books

I agree that his books are very readable, but I’m amazed that he hasn’t been sued for plagiarism. I’m not that careful a reader, but it was easy to find passages in his Civil War book that were lifted almost verbatim from Foote’s trilogy.

I would also be interested for Dopers’ comments on more general works. Most of the recommendations so far have been excellent books that cover a very narrow slice of history. Are there any recommendations for good survey texts, to provide a framework for the more specialized books?

I recently read Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic and can’t recommend it highly enough.

While chronicling the assassination of the remarkable (and tragic) James Garfield, the 20th president, Millard does a superb job of also describing the times (1880’s), their politics, technology, and medicine (or, lack of it).

A most rewarding read.

“American Colonies” by Alan Taylor is about, well…the American Colonies. It’s a real approachable read.

“Arc of Justice” is about one murder trial in 1920s Detroit, but it does a really good job of explaining race relations in America at that time.

“Overthrow” is about the history of America’s habit of overthrowing other country’s governments.

“Battlecry of the Republic” is a really good general history of the Civil War. Only one volume, so that’s helpful.

I second anything by McCullough.

A general one I like was actually written by a Brit: The Penguin History of the United States of America, by Hugh Brogan,

I’d recommend reading a general introductory history of a war before reading anything on specific battles. Get the context first.

American Heritage published a good series of general histories of America’s major wars. Each of them covers the basic facts of the war.

The American Revolution by Bruce Lancaster
The Civil War by Bruce Catton
World War I by S.L.A. Marshall
World War II by C.L. Sulzberger

James L. Stokesbury has written a series of good general histories:
A Short History of the American Revolution
A Short History of the Civil War
A Short History of World War I
A Short History of World War II
A Short History of the Korean War

And two more wars not covered in the above list:

The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America by Walter R. Borneman
1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman

I realize I missed a few wars. To fill in the gaps:

So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 by John S.D. Eisenhower
The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898 by G.J.A. O’Toole
Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow

Offhand, I can’t think of any general histories of our more recent wars. I guess I still think of them as current affairs.

But American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 by H.W. Brands is an excellent general history of the last few decades.

There are many many outstanding suggestions here. I’m curious as to whether you are interested in wide overviews that hit most of the key dates and events, or more focused works on very specific parts of the conflicts.

Many of the examples here, while great reads, are the letter. A Bridge Too Far focuses on the preparations for and aftermath of one single campaign. The Longest Day focuses on D-Day, but neither one will give you a particularly wide historical sweep. Other books like Beach’s Submarine focus on a single military service.

For myself, I prefer these latter kinds of works, because they are more immediate can relate individual actions much more… intimately, I suppose. War memoirs also have that kind of personal impact, and I cans suggest numerous of them if that’s what you’re looking for.

But if you do want the historical sweep, you can’t do better than Shelby Foote’s Civil War series (it’s at least 3 volumes – been years since I read it). Samuel Elliott Morrison writes a fairly authoritative sweeping history of US participation in WWII, though I understand more recent scholarship has revised some of his narrative.

I’m gonna go against the grain here and advise against Stephen Ambrose. For one thing he was a relentless cheerleader for America, who it seems could do no wrong in his eyes. Then there are the many accounts of plagiarism, getting facts wrong and just making shit up. Read his Wiki page if you want more details.

FYI, another guy to avoid is David Irving, who wrote some reasonable histories before becoming a Holocaust denier. I’m not sure when he crossed the line into fruit bagdom – I read his biography of Rommel years back and thought it was pretty good, but now I have to suspect everything he’s ever written.

Let me second the recommendation on Turkel’s book. Really and truly outstanding, and one of the few histories that involves women and their recollections of the home front. Wait until you read about “premature anti-fascists”, people who were against Hitler and Mussolini “too early”. It was the first place I ever even heard of the concept, and remains the only relatively mainstream publication that I’ve read discussing it. Completely blew me away.

Does anyone still read the historical works of Winston Churchill, or is he old hat now? :dubious:

If you’re interested in race relations in the United States, I can recommend two books: Crisis in Black and White, by Charles E. Silberman, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley.

For Vietnam, you might want to read A Rumor of War, by Phillip J. Caputo. He was one of the first Marine officers to serve there and became very anti-war by the time his tour was up. He also returned to South Vietnam as a correspondent, and was there for the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Ambrose also wrote a biography of Dwight Eisenhower (one of my favorite presidents) that’s on my current reading list.

A Rumor of War is excellent. I also recommend A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, which presents a biography of Colonel John Paul Vann as kind of a microcosm of the whole Vietnam conflict.

I just had another flashback: When I worked for the Minnesota Historical Society (lo, those many years ago!) I read an unintentionally hilarious book called Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in the 1830s by an Englishwoman named Frances Trollope. It describes her travels through the young United States and how repelled she was by virtually everything she observed.

Yet another flashback: The history of the early United States is closely connected to the development of keelboats and steamboat navigation, since the rivers of the interior were its natural highways. There was one book we had at MHS specifically on this topic, but I can’t remember the title (it would have been published sometime before 1985).

I suggest you do a search at your public library. In the meantime, you can read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, a firsthand account of what it was like to navigate that river.

I thought you might like to know that I started watching this on Netflix yesterday, and I’ve already blown through 6 of 9 episodes… that has to be around six hours of footage. Completely fascinating and educational - just riveting stuff. So thanks for the reccomendation. I’m beginning to understand the issues and the nature of the war so much better.

Thank you, this is a great reccomendation. I’ve read sections of it and plan to pick it up again today and read it straight through.

In the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, Shelby Foote says a lot of interesting things. I really enjoy his perspective, so I think I will be checking his book out.

If only it were a book. His Civil War series is three books, hundreds of pages each. Very worthwhile mind you, but it’s going to take you quite a while to get through it.

**The Illusion of Victory ** by Thomas Fleming is a very good book about American politics and the entry into WW1.

I would never tell someone to not listen to any particular perspective; I think we benefit from multiple and contending views.

But I do have to say that that series–despite a number of other virtues, including the presence of Shelby Foote–is emphatically a mainstream, victor-writes-the-history perspective. I saw an interview with Ken Burns in which he was asked about this, his answer was, almost verbatim, “our view is that the North were the good guys and the South were the bad guys, and the good guys won.”

While I give him a certain credit for laying it out so clearly, my mind still kind of boggles that anyone reckoned a historian, or historical documentarian, could think that such a reduction is an acceptable thesis for any struggle, anywhere in history.

It should not be any one person’s or project’s job to tell the whole story of anything so huge. I do appreciate that Ken Burns is ambitious and talented enough to tackle immense subjects and produce these vistas in film which often exceed in scope anything previously attempted on the subject and in the medium. But at the same time, that very sweep often leads people to regard his treatments as definitive when they assuredly are not. Knowledgeable baseball people may treasure his Baseball, but they also find it full of holes. It’s the same for Jazz, and it’s the same here. He has his theses, he has his chosen narrative threads, and as a filmmaker first, he tends to excise the parts of history that don’t fit in.

So, certainly, watch The Civil War, get what you can from it. But be sure to challenge its assumptions with some other views as well.

This is pretty much my view of Stephen Ambrose, but multiplied by… a lot.

Which other works would you recommend?

To echo the David McCullough reccomendations…I think The Great Bridge is an excellent architectural love story. It’s not about war, but you know, if you’re in the mood. (:

Your point is definitely well-taken. Most of what I know about American History I learned from* From Slavery To Freedom* through my American Racism class in grad school. The Civil War was described as a means to end slavery - which, to many emancipated slaves, was exactly what it was. I’m not saying it says nothing of states’ rights and all this, but the emphasis is decidedly on the atrocities committed against African Americans and their role in history.

Ken Burns’ series by comparison looks incredibly even-handed. I didn’t get the impression that he was coming down on one side or the other, though I do note he’s spent more time on Lincoln and Union politics than Davis and the Confederates. More than anything he seems to glorify Lee and to a lesser extent Grant. I do have the understanding that Union troops committed atrocities against Southern civilians and so far that hasn’t been addressed.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have a bias, I’m just saying it’s not glaringly obvious to a layperson watching the series. I get the impression Shelby Foote has a little more appreciation for the Southern side of things, which is why I’m so interested in what he has to say.

One thing I do have to know - was General McClellan really that incompetent?